Author: Jamie Shea, Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The European Council of heads of state or government decided at their December 2023 meeting to open membership negotiations with Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Moldova in addition to continuing them with the other six candidate countries. If all join, it will add some 160mn new citizens to the EU population. The President of the EU Council, Charles Michel, did suggest that the first batch among the 10 new candidate countries could join by 2030, which is amazingly ambitious as it means that negotiations would need to be completed by 2028 to allow sufficient time for ratification by the 27 EU member states. Much time in 2024 will also be lost as the EU holds its elections for a new European Parliament and the heads of its institutions. Four years for the negotiations seems hopelessly unrealistic and is a warning to EU officials to be open and honest about the tough questions that need to be answered and the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead.

Five core challenges will define the future of EU enlargement and it is urgent that the Brussels institutions start today to develop a plan of action.

  1. Firstly, how to keep the EU functioning and delivering every day for its citizens while so much time and energy will be spent by its leaders on the enlargement dossier? If EU citizens believe that the EU is focusing more on the welfare of non-member state citizens rather than their own, support for enlargement – which is never very strong in certain countries like France, the Netherlands or Italy – will plummet further. In the past, issues such as the EU’s role in defence and security, regulating new technologies such as artificial intelligence, controlling illegal migration, protecting key sectors like agriculture or trucking from foreign competition, could be put on hold as all the political energy was sucked into enlargement issues. But no more. Populists are much stronger today and exist in all EU member states. They will exploit any sense that the EU is not attuned to public concerns regarding secure borders, spiraling energy costs, environmental degradation and extreme weather events, unfair trade competition. Already, Polish farmers have blocked the transport of Ukrainian grain arguing that the cheaper prices are undercutting their production and livelihoods. Polish truckers have blocked three border crossings with Ukraine to protest against an EU decision to grant Ukraine goods and services access to the EU internal market. These protests are a foretaste of things to come as French farmers lose EU subsidies under the CAP, and Romania and Bulgaria lose structural and regional infrastructure funds as the EU diverts money to upgrading the economies and living standards of the candidate countries. The reconstruction costs for Ukraine are priced at nearly $500bn and will be massively more than that by the time the war ends. The EU has already pledged $50bn for Ukrainian reconstruction and $15bn for budgetary support to Kyiv. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has requested €20bn for the EU’s Peace Facility to collectively fund weapons supplies to Kyiv. This money is not linked directly to enlargement but to help Ukraine emerge intact from the Russian invasion. Unsurprisingly, the Commission has asked the member states for a revision to the current seven-year Financial Framework. Member states are dragging their feet but, manifestly, EU enlargement and the future functioning of the Union are not going to work with just 1.3 % of national GDPs being transferred to the EU budgets. Massive sums will be required, for several years. The challenge will therefore be to persuade existing EU citizens to see enlargement as good for them and not only good for future EU citizens. Governments will need to be honest about the undoubted heavy costs but get out into the field to take on the populists and make a convincing case. Hiding behind rosy scenarios and over-optimistic predictions is a recipe for long-term disaster. The problem is that the debate is asymmetric. Enlargement will bring short-term economic benefits to the future members but only long-term and more hypothetical benefits to the current EU members – as well as less tangible things than money in the pocket, such as security, values or the EU’s weight on the global stage. So, how do you win an argument in these conditions? The additional problem here is that European politicians need to revive and re-energise the debate on enlargement at a time when the whole process is running out of steam.  Negotiations with Türkiye stopped and are proceeding at a snail’s pace with Serbia and Montenegro. Other aspirants in the Western Balkans don’t seem to be making progress with the rule of law, fighting corruption and organised crime, or reforming their political systems and economies either. With enlargement fatigue so prevalent among the voters, how does the EU turn the ship around and rekindle some of the old post-Cold War enlargement enthusiasm?
  2. The second challenge is to balance the political and technical aspects of EU integration. The Union requires alignment with thousands of pieces of EU legislation. The acquis communautaire has evolved over six decades and now covers hundreds of thousands of pages of rules, regulations and directives on everything from car tail lights to the composition of chocolate. It is easy for both the Commission and the candidate countries to become trapped in these detailed and legalistic negotiations and to lose sight of the geopolitical dimension of EU enlargement. The process of bringing candidate countries closer to EU policymaking and to its foreign policy and security objectives must begin as soon as accession negotiations begin. It cannot be permissible for a candidate country like Serbia to carry on the technical talks while refusing to go along with EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and increasing its dependency on Russia and China for weapons, technology and energy supplies. Serbia has also refused to engage constructively with Kosovo on the normalisation of relations and makes periodic attempts to threaten its neighbour with military buildups on its northern border and create Belgrade-dominated parallel structures in northern Kosovo. A prospective EU member cannot take a pick-and-choose approach to EU integration and have a foot in both the liberal international camp and the camp of the authoritarians at the same time. It has to share EU values and behave and act as an EU member. So, the technical and political tracks of enlargement cannot run along separate parallel lines but need to proceed in lockstep, support each other and be assessed by the European Council, Commission and Parliament together. One major question here concerns the European Political Community (EPC) proposed by President Macron to facilitate the political dialogue between the EU member states and the rest of Europe from the Atlantic to the Caucasus. The EPC has held three summits thus far and has discussed pan-European issues such as regional conflicts, energy security and illegal migration. The problem, however, is that it hasn’t yet developed a common agenda, and some leaders, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, have stayed away precisely to avoid discussing regional conflicts – in this case, Nagorno Karabakh. An additional problem is that the UK does not see the EPC as an EU-linked institution but as something separate and may disengage if it believes that the Community is essentially a waiting room for enlargement.
  3. In third place is the challenge of managing the internal and external aspects of EU enlargement simultaneously. Thus far, countries joining the EU have been bolted onto the existing institutional structures taking their allocation of seats in the European Parliament and sending their Commissioner to Brussels in the hope that they will be given a weighty portfolio. The new members go into the pot of population size that helps to determine a weighted majority in EU voting where the consensus rule does not apply. So far, the EU has gone from 6 to 27 member states without the need for too much internal restructuring. The pie of regional, structural and agricultural funds has been redistributed and more thinly across more member states. The EU has long spoken of its ‘absorption capacity’ – which can also be understood as ‘limits’ – without defining exactly what this means. Is it that it cannot afford to admit new members or that it cannot admit more newcomers without major internal reforms? The prevailing view is that it is the second case and with nearly 40 rather than 30 members institutional reform is unavoidable so that the Union can continue to make decisions and function effectively. This debate has several angles from whether the newcomers have the right to a Commissioner to changing the voting rules and abolishing the consensus rules in favour of majority voting across the board to finance and the ability of the EU to impose its taxes and raise money on the capital markets. The debate has also embraced the structure of the Union with France and Germany going back to old ideas regarding a multi-tier or multi-speed Europe where member states could have different forms of integration and membership and different obligations and privileges attached to each level. This model might encourage the UK to seek a new form of association with the EU built around membership of the Customs Union and internal market, limited budget contributions and cooperation on foreign policy, security and defence. The challenge for the EU will be to define the pace and scope of institutional reform which is bound to be a sensitive and difficult debate touching the core of national interests. Does the EU change its structures, rules and procedures in anticipation of all 10 candidates eventually joining – as well as perhaps Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and the UK taking a second look? Or does it adopt a wait-and-see approach to see if enlargement indeed goes ahead? There are many in Brussels and in the member states who are sceptical that the EU will be able to go through with all its promises and will be forced to backtrack as neither it nor the majority of the current candidates will ever be truly ready. Or else, does it wait until the end of this next enlargement round and then debate institutional reforms with all the new members participating in the discussion and decision-making? Would this not make the EU dysfunctional and make a successful reform outcome even more unlikely? At all events, how will the two tracks of external and internal reform be coordinated and be made conditional on each other? Many observers believe that the EU’s member states need to look at the Union’s functioning even without the driver of further enlargement. They point to the backsliding of the existing members; for instance with the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, reversals on abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights, the suspensions of the Schengen zone of open borders, the inability to agree on an EU Migration Pact, Hungary holding up sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine, and the way in which states are violating EU budget rules or rules on state aid as they dole out subsidies to their prized national companies. In this view, the EU must protect the internal market against erosion and put its own house in order now rather than tie internal reform to a distant and uncertain enlargement process.
  4. Fourth is the issue of progressive integration. As the process of EU enlargement will be protracted and difficult with all 10 countries unlikely to be able to join as a group at the same time, contrary to what happened in 2004, the EU will need to give the candidates some of the benefits of full EU membership before they have formally completed the accession process. This will help them to stay motivated and move faster towards ultimate accession by adopting many of the EU’s norms and standards and consolidating a basis on which to build further. To some extent, this concept of progressive integration has been followed by the EU for decades already in the Association and Stabilisation Agreements that it has concluded with its neighbours. For instance, some like Switzerland and Norway have access to the internal market and freedom of movement. Even the UK concluded a Trade and Cooperation Agreement upon its departure from the EU in 2020. The challenge now will be to introduce these incentives to reform and meet EU standards into the accession process itself so that the rewards for progress are clear and tangible and populations in the candidate countries see the benefits, such as market access or labour and educational access, in return for the sacrifices that meaningful reforms can entail in the short term. Which benefits of membership should the EU grant at which stage of the reforms, neither being unnecessarily generous or harsh, and in a way that expedites the capacity of candidate countries to meet all 35 chapter requirements? This is a complex issue that the EU will need to grapple with.
  5. EU standards and implementation. In the past, the Commission has been criticised for not following up with sufficient rigour on the actual implementation of EU-required legal changes and institutional and economic reforms. It has been content to tick the boxes of reforms that candidate countries declare that they have carried out, at least in terms of formal adoption. But everything depends upon actual implementation and stringent monitoring that new laws are being followed and the reforms are working. As the EU gets bigger, it will only be able to function if the rules are taken seriously by all the member states and applied consistently across the Union. So, the culture of observance of EU law and rules is one that the Commission has to inculcate into the candidate countries from the outset of the negotiations. This task would admittedly be easier if the existing member states would themselves set a better example. At the same time, the EU needs to establish a credible and trusted verification mechanism to monitor implementation and call out lapses or backsliding. This type of rigour will help to restore public confidence in the enlargement process in the existing EU member states. As President Macron and some other EU leaders have suggested in the past, this process has to be reversible in the case of those candidates whose accession stagnates indefinitely for political or technical reasons. At a certain point – and Türkiye and Serbia are often cited in this regard – the EU has to declare ‘time-out’, revoke the candidate status and propose an alternative form of association. In the case of Türkiye, an enhanced form of the current Customs Union has been an option advocated by many EU watchers. Observers of EU enlargement may well believe that we are about to repeat previous exercises in bringing onboard new members and that this is business as usual – love it or hate it. But this time around, the stakes are far higher. The EU has not before enlarged at a time of war and in a geopolitical space that is hotly contested by an authoritarian great power rival, in this case, Russia. Moreover, Russia has been prepared to use force on a major scale to stop the EU from moving ahead and is seeking to undermine it through a host of hybrid warfare campaigns, and political interference and disinformation tactics. To succeed with this round of enlargement the EU will need to widen and deepen at the same time, and not in subsequent stages as on previous occasions. Internal changes may require new EU treaties and referendums in certain member states which we know is a hazardous exercise. And the EU will need to deliver on the needs for security, protection and prosperity of its existing citizens and those of its future citizens at the same time. The image of redesigning the plane as you fly seems appropriate here. Above all, the whole process, when it is ultimately completed in several years, has to lead to a stronger EU on the global stage, able to advance its values and interests and stand up to the headwinds coming from Russia, China and even a Trump-led US in a more competitive and confrontational world. From a conceptual point of view, an EU of 40 member states is both an asset and a weakness as the EU strives to become a forceful geopolitical player. Never before has the EU faced a challenge on this scale, and never before have we needed inspirational EU leadership to impose strategic direction and coherence on this complex process. It is not just about the future functioning of the EU, but about the future security of Europe and indeed the survival of European civilisation itself.

Add new comment